Remembering the great days out #1

| 11 Aug 2011

I hadn't been on C&SC very long when, as is usual with a hefty group test, I (as the then recently appointed chief sub-editor, having washed up on these glistening shores from an undistinguished career in local newspapers and corporate mags) was roped in with everyone else, from the bin-emptier all the way down the Haymarket foodchain to the editor, to help out. Being a bit wet behind the ears – I knew and owned classics but hadn't ever been exposed to the array on test that day – I turned up at what was known simply as Chobham (us locals knew it better as Longcross even then), the tank testing facility on the edge of Chobham Common frequented ad nauseam by all the British motoring mags.

Oddly, I can't even remember what car I was required to drive down there, maybe because all the "getting there" stories (always a highlight of big C&SC photoshoots) were so soundly trumped by DTR European Sportscars boss Paul De Turris, who had for some reason departed from his usual Fiat 124 fare to bring along a Daimler SP250. I can only imagine that it may have been on the forecourt of (can't spell) Garry and (can't spell) Shortt's Classic Chrome that was then opposite (actually still is, it is DTR that has moved) in Mortlake. Anyway, an excited but agitated Paul turned up (only just, by all accounts) in this Dart regaling us with tales of vivid acceleration, impressive even, followed by lurid bodyflex and then terrifying chassis whip on the motorway. All other arrival memories have been supplanted by this and gone.

There followed one of the most free days I have ever encountered on the magazine: we had 10 sports cars (actually I can't remember the real number either, but it's always 10) and the run of Chobham all day. At this point you are probably wondering why my memories are so hazy and I haven't been so professional as to refresh them. Well, that is deliberate precisely because I want to see what is important in retrospect without such an aide memoire. There are two main "bits" – well that's the motoring hacks' technical term – to Chobham, the outer ring and the snake, actually a couple of tricky curves (bends would be giving them too much credit) with a slight crest in the middle. The latter is overhung by trees so is the spot where all those sexy leaf-strewn (or badly Photoshopped out leaves – look for blurry or repeated spots on the grille – depending on the mores of the photographer) shoots were done.

So, what do I remember, apart from learning the art of being on a photoshoot, which is basically a gargantuan amount of standing around? Well I remember that Dart and De Turris was pretty much on the money. I have never known a car so happy to revolve on its own axis. Like some crazed, frenzied gyroscope, it would turn doughnuts from standstill with barely a squirt of throttle and an armful of lock, every time we repeatedly parked it on a vaguely loose surface. Oops. Sorry about the tyre bill Garry (if indeed it was you).

I remember the 124 Spider that DTR had also brought along. See, some people turn up at shoots with cars that don't really do the marque or model credit, but whenever you got a 124 from DTR you knew they would supply the best. They knew – and know – what an advert it can be if they get it right. And they got it right this time. The car was fresh out of resto  and spot on in every way. It positively fizzed with sporting loveliness, the handling was wonderful, the brakes sublime, everything was perfect and it confused the hell out of me: it drove like the most together sports car ever, but was so together it felt like an exotic, maybe a baby Ferrari or something. I am sure that few are that good, but on the basis of that day, I consider the 124 Spider to be criminally undervalued to this day.

It didn't win my heart though, that was utterly, stupidly and brutally wrenched from me by something far more animalistic. From the second I lifted the T-bar to engage reverse I knew I was going to love the Sunbeam Tiger. On company fuel it was even more fun. So I spent the day gunning it, occasionally being prised out of it and basically being the patsy running errands because I leaped at any opportunity to drive this car. I went out for sandwiches, then went straight back out for fuel to replace that I had burned en route to the supermarket. The Tiger and I were instant motoring soul-mates.

So much so that shortly afterwards I found one to buy for another feature. Bloke said I could have it (a Mk1) for £5k. The next weekend I dragged Julian Balme up to Essex to validate my purchase and he, not wanting to be responsible for my financial downfall, wisely pointed out all the potential horrors and talked me out of it. I should have taken a different C&SCer with a Tiger history (Walsh) because I reckon he would have made me go for it.

Besides if I had bought that Tiger, I would have been too busy funding the replacement of inner panels to have bought my Elan. So Balme was right, rationally, if not emotionally, because things went crazy and I never got close to bagging a Tiger again. But all that is beside the point, which is that we had an amazing day out with these 10 sports cars and I can only remember three of them. 

Maybe I was simpy too lowly to drive the others, maybe I just wasn't offered, but without flicking to the front of the book to check the answers, that is all I recall. Well, that and the look on then-editor Gavin Conway's face when the bill for the test track and the fuel receipts came in. After that there would be myriad great C&SC days out, but never again one with quite that abandon (for which read, cost).

Thing is, if Gavin had asked nicely, I was on such a high after the Tiger, so intoxicated by its noise and poise, that I would happy have paid for the track out of my salary, even if it was two month's worth of pay.

A lot of good things have happened to me since (Mick Walsh and I became the jammiest sods on the planet for a couple of hours at Curborough one day, but I will share that story another time), but I guess that this was that day that made me realise that this was a job that I could never voluntarily leave.After the event research reveals that, as well as the cars mentioned above, the photoshoot – for the July 1997 issue of C&SC – included Alfa Romeo 2600 Spider, Jaguar XJS V12 HE, Chevrolet Camaro, Mercedes-Benz 350SL, Morgan 4/4, Peugeot 504 V6 Cabrio and Triumph TR250 (that's an American market TR5, and Elliott drove it, below)